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Utah researchers say study is breakthrough for examining low-functioning autistic youth

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Students walk past the "block U" on the University of Utah's campus in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.

FILE - Students walk past the “block U” on the University of Utah’s campus in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.

Chris Samuels, Deseret News

PROVO — Researchers say a newly published study authored by experts at BYU and University of Utah represents a breakthrough in how to more adequately examine the brain activity of autistic youth who have low cognitive abilities.

The study, published late last month in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Molecular Autism, used MRI technology to examine the connectivity of different regions of the brains of 54 people between 7 and 17 years old.

Seventeen of those subjects were defined as both being autistic and having "low verbal and cognitive performance," with a median IQ score of 54.

Obtaining MRI imaging from such a group represents the filling in of "a critical gap in our understanding of brain function across the autism spectrum," researchers said in a written summary of the study.

"They've been neglected in research — they've been really neglected. Especially in brain imaging research," Mikle South, senior author on the study and professor of psychology and neuroscience at BYU, told the Deseret News. "We've shown that it is possible to study this group of kids and get them more involved, where they've just been left out before."

That is because such a population generally has a strong reluctance to the unique experience of getting an MRI scan, for which recipients are asked to stay motionless, according to South.

In the study, participants were given several ways of reducing their anxiety, researchers said.

That included allowing them to bring MRI-safe comfort items such as a stuffed animal with them during the scan; having their parent role-play to them beforehand what getting a scan looks like and maintain physical touch with them during the procedure; not requiring them to change into medical scrubs; and providing headphones through which researchers could communicate with them.

All but four of those with low cognitive ability were able to satisfactorily complete the MRI scan process, the study's results say.

The researchers who worked on the project are eager to "let other groups know that with patience and hard work, more (scientists) make this work," South said.

More-robust brain imaging research of autistic youth with low cognitive and verbal skills could eventually allow medical professionals to provide "more specific and helpful support" and "maximize (those young people's) potential for what their skills are, and also provide support (in their areas) of biggest weakness," he said.

"We can … ameliorate or moderate some of the downsides these kids face, the challenges these kids face, to allow their strengths to manifest themselves more clearly," South said.

Twenty other autistic youth who were examined were considered to have "high verbal and cognitive performance," and had a similar IQ to that of 19 "neurotypical" children and teenagers not on the autism spectrum who also received an MRI scan.

Overall, the study set out to examine any differences among the three groups in "functional connectivity patterns" of various parts of the brain.

Researchers found that generally speaking, "participants with the lowest IQ have higher connectivity across a broad range" of linkages in the brain, and that "this finding of general overconnectivity may represent overall poor differentiation and segmentation of brain regions."

"It may be that lower verbal ability and IQ are associated with (a brain's) overall greater global synchrony and fewer task-specific activations," the study concludes.

However, the researchers also caution in their findings that "extensive variability exists" in the field's overall body of research as to "whether there is increased or decreased connectivity in autism" specifically, and that much of that uncertainty "is likely related to the heterogeneity of individuals with autism."

South hopes further research on the topic — aided by improvements in examining those with autism who also have low cognitive and verbal abilities — will help the medical field "to view autism more holistically, rather than trying to track down one symptom or another."

"When we're just looking at behavior, we make guesses about how these behaviors are related to each other. And when we look at the brain, we may see that rather than being separate pieces, they're all related to this pattern of brain activity," he said.